Earthquakes and Volcanoes:
Scientific Research from the 1980s and 1990s
Excerpts from Valerie Vaughan's new book, Earth Cycles
Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them
up, at least a little bit.
-- Hellmut Walters
In 1974, John Gribbin proposed in his book The Jupiter Effect that the combined tidal forces of the planets, sun and moon might produce severe earthquakes in 1982. Gribbin's work was subsequently held up by skeptical scientists as an example of "bad science." In regard to the geocosmic outcome of extreme tidal forces on which Gribbin based his prediction, these same skeptics never acknowledged the fact that a rather major volcanic event followed soon after the full moon-planetary alignment of Mar. 10, 1982. A few days after the following new moon, seismic activity began near El Chichón, a volcano in Mexico. The volcano itself erupted on April 3-4, 1982, eventually spewing huge amounts of dust and gases into the stratosphere to the unprecedented heights of 14-to-20 miles above the earth.
As reported in the 1984 Science Year: The World Book Science Annual, "Scientists thought El Chichón's effects on weather might be as far-reaching as those of El Niño. Within months, the El Chichón cloud of volcanic particles had spread around the world in tropical latitudes to 30 N 00, and was the cause of unusually long and colorful sunsets. High concentrations of sulfur dioxide gas and sulfuric acid droplets in the cloud reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the earth's surface by as much as 30% and caused a slight cooling of the earth's lower atmosphere."
As impressive as this event was, the 1982 eruption of El Chichón was not acknowledged by scientists as evidence supporting Gribbin or any theory of geocosmic connections. They also conveniently ignored a great deal of evidence concerning geomagnetic changes and drastic weather outcomes that occurred at this time. The following information is quoted from "Climatic Responses to Variable Solar Activity -- Past, Present and Predicted," by Hurd C. Willett (in Climate, History, Periodicity, and Predictability, ed. Michael r. Rampino et al., Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1987).
"The aa index of geomagnetic disturbance, presumably disturbance by the solar wind, remained surprisingly low during the sunspot maximum of 1979. ... Suddenly, in February 1982, the aa index jumped to double its level of the preceding months and rose sharply to the highest level in its 118 years of record, remaining quite high during 1983. The whole pattern of weather action changed." Willett goes on to list the weather events that followed. The summer of 1982 was the first cool wet one in years in the U.S.; it was one of the coldest and wettest on record in eastern Europe and Russia. The fall of 1982 broke all records for precipitation totals from California and eastward across the Rockies and Dakotas. From Nov. 1982 to June 1983, an unorthodox and unprecedentedly strong El Niño brought torrential rains and destruction to Columbia and Peru. The winter of 1982-1983 was the second warmest on record in the U.S., with record heavy rains and flooding in the Mississippi Valley. The spring of 1983 brought record flooding in China and India, record heavy rains in the north Atlantic coastal states of the U.S., and record storminess and rain in western Europe, with London reporting a record-shattering 31 consecutive days of rain in May.
As the reader might have noticed, the geomagnetic index jumped prior to the eruption of El Chichón, so it cannot be simply argued that extra volcanic dust was the ultimate cause of all that atmospheric commotion. In 1990, scientists had another opportunity for acknowledging the larger picture and recognizing the geocosmic correlations, but again, this was ignored and denied. In order to relate the story of what happened, we have to start back in the 19th century.
The largest earthquake ever recorded in America occurred during the winter of 1811-12, along the New Madrid fault, located in Missouri. Major earthquakes occurred on Dec. 16, 1811, and Jan. 23 and Feb. 7, 1812. This last shock, the most violent, measured an impressive 8.8 on the Richter scale. The initial tremor caused damage in Cincinnati, some 650 km away, and was felt as far away as Canada, the Gulf of Mexico, and Boston.
During 1990, anticipation grew among the general public that such events might again be replayed in the Midwest around Dec. 3, 1990 -- despite the skepticism of most seismologists. The date for this prediction had been given by Dr. Iben Browning, whose previous track record for anticipating earthquakes had been phenomenal and well-publicized by the media. [See Winkless, Browning, 1975.] Browning's rationale was that the 19-year lunar cycle, which brings the earth, sun, and moon into a recurrent alignment, would once again put the full moon at its closest approach to the earth (perigee), while the earth approached its own perihelion with the sun. He theorized that this combination of multiple cycles of tidal force would put seismically sensitive areas at risk. Browning's predicted timetable for the 1990 earthquake was also 178-179 years after the 1811-12 events, a well-established period in which most of the planets are aligned on one side of the sun. It was this same 178-year planetary cycle that had been the subject of Gribbin and Plagemann's controversial book, The Jupiter Effect .
Further confirmation for Browning's prediction had been given by John Bagby, a researcher from Hughes Aircraft, who had made independent studies of seismic phenomena and geocosmic connections for several decades. Among other discoveries, Bagby had found an 11.1-year cycle in Armenian quakes, triggered by lunisolar tidal forces, which corresponded to one-half the complete sunspot cycle of 22.1 years. Bagby anticipated a possible New Madrid earthquake around Dec. 17, 1990, based on well-known 86-year planetary cycles plus his own 4.424-year lunar cycle, which is about one-fifth of the complete sunspot cycle of 22.1 years. Back in 1978, Bagby had predicted that a worldwide seismic peak would occur in 1991.
The existence of such cycles involved in seismic activity had been debated for years, with the scientific consensus being heavily negative. In addition, the popular media presented simplistic versions of Browning's approach, which did not impress the official seismologists. When the New Madrid fault failed to produce an earthquake in 1990, the skeptics had a fine time broadcasting their attitude of "I told you so." However, there is some interesting evidence which seems to have been overlooked. For example, in the March 1991 issue of Earth in Space, which is published by the American Geophysical Union, we find an article entitled "World Earthquake Activity Increased in 1990." Here are some relevant excerpts:
"The number of significant earthquakes in the world increased in 1990, and the number of deaths attributed to earthquakes in 1990 was almost as high as during the entire decade of the 1980s. ... 68 significant earthquakes (6.5 or greater in magnitude) occurred throughout the world in 1990 [10% more than the annual average during the 1980s]. ... The reported earthquake death toll for 1990 exceeded 52,000, a number comparable to the total earthquake deaths of 57,000 for the entire previous decade."
Returning to our story, in late 1990, many Midwesterners began preparing for the earthquake predicted by Browning. In many areas, officials closed schools, held preparedness drills, and parked fire trucks outdoors. Businesses closed or made special preparations. Many people left the area or stocked up on emergency supplies. Homeowners spent millions of dollars on earthquake insurance. As reported by skeptics, this "silliness" resulted from a claim that was completely debunked by seismologists.
One of the numerous articles that blasted Iben Browning was "Earthquake -- or Earthquack?" by Richard Kerr (Science, Oct. 26, 1990, vol. 250, p. 511). This article related the conclusions of the National Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council (NEPEC), which had felt compelled to examine Browning's claims. According to Kerr, "Their verdict? You could predict the date of an earthquake just as accurately if you threw darts at a calendar. The NEPEC disputed Browning's claims at nearly every turn. To begin with, they could find no firm scientific support for his methods. Browning had arrived at his conclusion by calculating how the tides raised in Earth's crust by the sun and moon -- tides just like those raised in the ocean -- periodically increase the strain on faults. He noted that within a couple of days of 3 December, 1990, the sun, Earth, and the moon will be lined up and the moon will be especially close to Earth, producing one of the greatest tidal strains of the century."
Kerr continued, "The NEPEC group released a report citing numerous objections to the particulars of Browning's method. For one, the peaks in crustal strain caused by tides are tiny, and peaks essentially the same size as December's have occurred in recent years without effect. The group summed up with the claim that 'there does not appear to be a theoretical basis for Browning's prediction, and in fact, it appears theoretically implausible.' And even if Browning was on to a physical mechanism the experts could not understand, the group asked, why hadn't any of the numerous searches of the past few decades for a tide-earthquake link turned up a reliable statistical connection?" [As we have seen in previous chapters of Earth Cycles, there had been statistical studies that showed the connection, but the NEPEC simply ignored this fact.]
Now compare this critical view of Browning with the treatment that the officially-approved seismologists got for their failed predictions in another article by Richard Kerr, "Parkfield Quakes Skip a Beat (Science, Feb. 19, 1993, vol. 259, p. 1120). "Seismologists predicted an earthquake in Parkfield, CA, by the end of 1992 based on analysis of the earthquake cycle, but the event failed to occur. The complexity of fault systems makes long-term predictions difficult, but scientists still believe Parkfield is in the final quarter of a quake cycle. ... Seismologists' first official earthquake forecast has failed, ushering in an era of heightened uncertainty and more modest ambitions. ... As recently as the mid-1980s, predicting earthquakes years in the future was a promising concept. The basic idea was as simple as the ticking of a clock. At least some faults seemed to accumulate and release stress over a regular cycle. Seismologists agreed that one of the best places to test the idea was a section of the San Andreas fault that runs by the tiny village of Parkfield in central California. The fault segment had broken in moderate, magnitude 6 quakes every 22 years or so since 1857. Allowing 5 years of leeway to account for the inevitable irregularities of natural systems, the next Parkfield earthquake should strike around 1988 -- or almost surely by the end of 1992."
Kerr explained that this forecast had been offered in 1984 by three California seismologists. "Not long afterward, it was endorsed by the National Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council (NEPEC), and the San Andreas near Parkfield became the most closely watched fault segment in the world. With complications multiplying in earthquake prediction, many seismologists weren't surprised that Parkfield failed to live up to the forecast. But that doesn't mean that they have given up on more modest kinds of predictions. ... Eventually, the $1.8 million being spent each year on the Parkfield Earthquake Prediction Experiment will pay off, most researchers say. ... The state of California, they add, is pleased by the smoothly operating public warning system developed for Parkfield, which was exercised recently following a possible foreshock."
Notice all the discrepancies here. For instance, Californians were "pleased" to respond to scientists' warnings based on a cycle of 22 years (which incidentally matches the astronomical cycle of sunspots), while Midwesterners were "silly" to prepare for Browning's predicted earthquake, which was based on a different astronomical cycle. Notice also that the Parkfield observers allowed themselves a window of up to five years on either side of their predicted time, making their forecast not only useless for all practical purposes, but ridiculously so. As to the millions of dollars spent in supporting failed predictions of scientists, it is never mentioned that Iben Browning wasted no public funds whatsoever. This omission gives an important clue as to the real agenda going on here. Scientists feel compelled to skewer outsiders like Browning for suggesting that earthquakes can be predicted according to lunar cycles. After all, that's a cycle that could be figured out with pencil and paper by someone with a high school education, and if that kind of thing were allowed to go on, there would be a lot of highly equipped and grant-funded Ph.D.'s who would be out of a job.
The "possible foreshock" mentioned by Kerr, which instigated the scientists' warning, refers to a situation that deserves some further review. Information about this and the "failed prediction" can be found in an earlier article (Science, Oct. 30, 1992, vol. 258, p. 742), again written by Richard Kerr. "Eight years ago, a group of three geophysicists made a bold prediction. By 1993, a magnitude 6.0 earthquake would rupture the San Andreas fault near Parkfield, California. ... The original prediction was based on the recurrence of earthquakes at the same place every 22 years -- on average. The last Parkfield quake struck in 1966, so the next one was predicted to occur in 1988, give or take five years (the 22-year figure is an average derived from some widely varying intervals: 24, 20, 21, 12 and 32 years.) ... With only ten weeks to go before time ran out on the forecast, researchers last week thought the long-anticipated event might be about to happen. On October 19, a magnitude 4.7 quake struck just north of Parkfield, and USGS geophysicists immediately called for an alert. They assumed that this could be a foreshock and that the long-predicted main event might follow within three days."
The quake of Oct. 19 triggered the first official short-term earthquake prediction in the United States. The California Office of Emergency Services announced "there is now a greater than 37% chance that the predicted earthquake will occur within a 72-hour window." After a week passed, however, the researchers were still waiting. Finally, on October 26, a magnitude 3.9 quake struck. This was certainly not the anticipated major quake, but by this time scientists were grasping at straws for any supporting evidence of their prediction.
Kerr continues, "But the geophysicists who made the prediction aren't necessarily all that upset that Parkfield hasn't gotten its shaking. It would have vindicated the 1985 forecast (reported in Science, April 19, 1985), but ironically, it would have been something of a setback for predicting earthquakes elsewhere." The reason? Aside from the one foreshock, there were no known (i.e., scientifically acceptable) indicators that the rupture was about to occur. As one seismologist remarked, "None of this fits any scenario we had fixed up." Kerr went on to explain, "That left researchers in something of a bind: Either their long-term prediction is about to fail, or (if the expected quake strikes in the next few weeks) the prospects for short-term prediction will suffer a serious blow."
This is very interesting. If the major earthquake had occurred, then the scientists would have been "right" about their identifying a "22-year cycle" (even though the actual time interval since the previous quake was 27 years). However, if the quake had occurred at the last possible moment within the 5-year window, it would have occurred without identifiable precursors (i.e., in ways that did not accord with the scientific understanding of mechanisms), and then the method would be useless for applying to earthquake prediction elsewhere. This sounds an awful lot like the situation facing astrologers (or geocosmic researchers like Browning) -- they might be accurate in their predictions based on astronomically-induced cycles, but if any of this contradicts current theories of earthquake mechanism, then their predictive method will be declared useless.
With the failure of the Parkfield experiment, some ass-covering seemed to be in order, so Kerr quoted the opinions of those who are skeptical of periodicity, including a scientist specializing in the statistics of seismology, who argued that, "such a presumption of regularity in earthquake cycles is based on wishful thinking that there is simple physics behind earthquakes. The empirical evidence is to the contrary. These things are very complicated and difficult to predict." Kerr concludes his article by quoting another scientist who can imagine a happy ending for the Parkfield experiment. "If all this is leading to a larger earthquake, it is proceeding differently from the other Parkfield quakes. Maybe we're looking at a more protracted preparation time, and we're going to see a few more things before the earthquake happens. We go through phases in seismology where we see things that confirm our previous paradigms, and we're confident. Then come the surprises, and we're not so bold about predicting the future." Incidentally, Kerr entitled his article "Seismologists Issue a No-Win Earthquake Warning," but it appears that scientists can manage to look as though they win anyway, no matter what happens.
Oh, and by the way, the October 26 earthquake happened at the New Moon, when several stressful planetary alignments were also occurring (measured both geocentrically and heliocentrically). But of course, if that correlation were mentioned, official science would dismiss it as coincidence, especially because it was only a 3.9 magnitude earthquake, a size that occurs quite often.
For years, the skeptics continued to give Iben Browning a thrashing. With particularly tasteless timing, our old friend Richard Kerr published "The Lessons of Dr. Browning" in the Aug. 9, 1991, issue of Science, just a few weeks after Browning died. The main message of this debunking article was to criticize the scientific community who "didn't call Browning a quack early on" -- even though they did (See "The New Madrid Quack," Science News, Dec. 15, 1990, p. 380). Kerr even seems to have forgotten that his own earlier article was entitled "Earthquake -- or Earthquack?" (Science, Oct. 26, 1990), but he goes on anyway to suggest that scientists should "respond more aggressively to the next Browning-style prediction."
In 1998, John Farley published Earthquake Fears, Predictions, and Preparations in Mid-America, which purported to explore why the public took Browning's prediction seriously. A book review in the Oct. 9, 1998, issue of Science (vol. 282, p. 247) reminded readers that Browning could impress the public because he "could offer simple answers about earthquakes, with specific dates and places -- which scientists could not do." According to this review, "Farley's analysis of why Browning was believed offers a cautionary note for scientists, who instinctively assume that presenting a careful analysis of a situation will debunk nonsense. In that spirit, a committee of seismologists examined Browning's argument that the earthquake would be triggered by tidal forces, showed that these forces were too small to trigger earthquakes, and found that seismicity during the periods Browning claimed were risky was no greater than expected purely by chance."
So, according to scientists, tidal forces have no effect on earthquakes, and according to the NEPEC, "there does not appear to be a theoretical basis for Browning's prediction, and in fact, it appears theoretically implausible." Keeping in mind that these statements were made with great finality and authority, let's take a look at yet another article by Richard Kerr, "A Slow Start for Earthquakes" (Science; Feb. 13, 1998; vol. 279, p. 985). Believe it or not, this article is about seismologists admitting that lunar and solar tidal effects could be used to make predictions about earthquakes. Kerr first explains that seismologists look for precursors -- some sort of signal that a fault is about to break. According to theory and experiments, faults should give off warning signs as stress increases and they build toward sudden rupture, but so far, "no one has found them." Now, however, as Kerr explains, "researchers using a seemingly roundabout method (testing for the effects of tides on quake timing) offer the strongest evidence yet that some faults do start to slip, rapidly concentrating stress, for hours or days before the full blown rupture."
Kerr then describes the work of seismologists who have been studying the timing of more than 13,000 small-to-moderate quakes along the San Andreas fault near Parkfield, California. The ultimate drive for earthquakes on this fault is movement of tectonic plates which continually builds up stress at about 0.1 millibar per hour. "But the gravitational tugs of the moon and sun, which raise tides in the earth just as they do in the ocean, also vary the stress -- much faster than tectonics does. As the tides wax and wane, they alternately increase and relieve stress on faults at a rate of several millibars per hour."
According to the Parkfield researchers, the tides should sometimes trigger quakes on faults already close to rupture. "The effect would be subtle -- most seismologists long ago rejected schemes to predict earthquakes from tides. Nevertheless, the seismic events should be more common when the tidal pull is strongest, for example during full and new moons." This would make sense if the tidal variations and stress build-up were the only factors, but according to the tests of researchers, there was no direct correlation of earthquakes and tidal effects, so they believe there must be some other short-term stress source. Kerr concludes, "Can seismologists catch this preparatory movement in action and so predict earthquakes? No one knows yet."
As we might expect, there is no mention whatsoever of Iben Browning, whom scientists had lambasted for using tidal effects to predict earthquakes. But also notice how the possibility of positive results is undermined ("seismologists long ago rejected schemes to predict earthquakes from tides"), and how easily the tidal effect is discounted ("according to the tests of researchers, there was no direct correlation of earthquakes and tidal effects").
It is important to recognize that the rules for proper scientific investigation have been made by and for scientists, with the implied corollary that no one outside the Science Club is allowed to play by these rules. One very important "members only" rule is that scientists are allowed to make mistakes and change their ideas. In other words, they can flatly state that "tidal forces cannot trigger earthquakes," and then turn around and say with equal authority that "tides should trigger some earthquakes." While this may look to the rest of us blokes as though scientists have carte blanche for lying -- or at the very least, for producing confusion -- scientists (again, the ones who make these rules which apply only to themselves) will brag that "this is how science progresses." And with scientists defining how the game is played, scientists can always "win." There is nothing wrong with progressing through trial and error. The problem comes when those who are making the mistakes and revising the theories give no credit to others who got the theory right before they did.
Another clever method for guaranteeing a winning situation is to alter the terminology. Scientists take advantage of this all the time. For example, when astrologers or other non-scientists study the tidal effects of perigee, full moon, or other astronomical alignments, noting that earthquakes have occurred at these times, then they are criticized for using a priori knowledge and making "after-the-fact" predictions. But when scientists conduct research in precisely the same way, new terminology is designed to describe it as acceptable, as we find in the following choice excerpt from "Earthquake Prediction," by Ziro Suzuki (Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 1982, Vol. 10, p. 252). "The usual way to search for an earthquake precursor is to try to find an anomaly by using a priori knowledge of earthquake occurrence -- a method ironically called post-prediction."
For the remainder of this chapter, we trace the ongoing attempts of researchers to find and explain geocosmic correlations of seismic and volcanic activity.
NOTE to readers: Presented here are just a few of the scientific studies published from 1980 to 1999. (The complete list is given in Valerie Vaughan's book Earth Cycles.)
Dzurisin, D. Influence of Fortnightly Earth Tides at Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii. Geophysical Research Letters, 1980, Vol. 7, pp. 925-928.
In this study, volcanic eruptions are found to be correlated with the lunar cycle. Dzurisin studied the records for eruptions of Kilauea, which extend from Jan. 1832 to the present, and found that eruptions showed a significant cycle of 14.7 days.Kilston, S., and Knopoff, L; "Lunar-Solar Periodicities of Large Earthquakes in Southern California," Nature, 1983, vol. 304, pp. 21-25.
The authors report that "large earthquakes in southern California with epicenters between 33 and 36 degrees North latitude have statistically significant 12-hourly, lunar fortnightly and 18.6-yr periodicities. Smaller earthquakes in the same region do not display these periodicities. A search for tidal effects associated with these periodicities shows that large earthquakes have significant correlations with the times and orientations of daily/semi-daily tidal stresses while the lunar fortnightly terms are associated with the ocean tides along the Southern Californian coast."Ramos, E.G., et al. Earth Tide Influence on the Recent Activities of Mayon Volcano. Philippine Jo. of Volc., 1985, Vol. 2, pp. 156-171.
In this study, volcanic eruptions are found to be correlated with the fortnightly tidal maxima of the lunar cycle.Kokus, Martin. The 9.2-to-9.6-Year Cycles: From Earth's Rotation to Commodities. Cycles, Dec. 1988, Vol. 39, pp. 288-289.
Kokus studied the cyclical changes that occur in the earth's rotation rate and found them caused in part by various astronomical cycles, including 13.6 days, 27.5 days, one year, 4.42 years, 9.3 years and 11 years. Kokus suggests that such cycles may trigger earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, along with consequent changes in weather (due to increased atmospheric dust) and crop production.Volcanoes on Earth May Follow the Sun, Science News, 1990, vol. 137: p.47.
This article reports on the work of R.B. Stothers, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who looked into the possible correlation of solar activity and terrestrial volcanism. When he began his research, he fully expected to find no connection at all. After all, what could small changes in the sun's output have to do with stirring up the earth's magma at 93 million miles away? When he examined the evidence, however, Stothers was in for a surprise. According to this article, "Stothers analyzed two immense catalogs, published in the early 1980s, that list more than 55,000 known eruptions since the year 1500. Concentrating on several hundred of the moderate-to-large eruptions, he found statistically significant patterns in eruption frequency that match the solar cycle. Eruptions seemed most numerous during the weakest portions of the solar cycle." In addition, there was a 97% confidence that the correlation was not a statistical accident. Stothers offered this cause-and-effect explanation: During periods of abundant sunspots, increased solar emissions jar the earth's atmosphere slightly. Communicated to the crust, these slight taps trigger tiny earthquakes that relieve stresses beneath volcanos, thus delaying their eruptions until solar activity dies down.Jueneman, Frederic B. Moon over Miasma. R & D; Mar. 1990; vol. 32 (no. 3): 45.
This article discusses the possible mechanism for lunar influence on earthquakes having to do with the earth-moon barycenter, a shifting center of gravity that acts as a massive pump that could set tectonic plates into motion.Monastersky, Richard. California Shakes Most Often in September. Science News; Dec. 13, 1997; 152: 373.
This is a report on research that suggests that atmospheric pressure causes high frequency of earthquakes in September. The article begins, "Seismologists have discovered a potential link between earthquakes and the weather, a connection that researchers had dismissed for decades. [Note the curious language here. How can you discover something that has been dismissed?] A study of earthquakes in California and neighboring states indicates that fault activity in the last five years has followed a yearly pattern. The predominantly tiny quakes have occurred most frequently in September and least often in April." Researchers have theorized that atmospheric pressure is the controlling factor. As they explain, "when air pressure remains low, as it does during the warmth of summer, it lessens the weight of the atmosphere pressing on the ground. ... This reduces the friction on rocks, so earthquakes can occur more easily. Some Californians have long asserted that earthquakes tend to follow certain weather patterns, but seismologists had been unable to find reliable connections." [This is by no means a new theory; the mechanism of changing atmospheric pressure was clearly explained by Ellsworth Huntington in 1922.]Copyright © One Reed Publications, 2002
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